“At a time when the state seems pervasive and inescapable,” writes James Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed, “it is easy to forget that for much of history, living within or outside the state – or in an intermediate zone – was a choice.”
Our world is one of nation-states. Cleanly drawn, easily mapped out lines of sovereignty give rise to notions of undisturbed unity, a singular linguistic, cultural, and ethnic community populating one geographic region.
But that’s almost never the case.
The situation surrounding Bang Kloi and the displacement of Karen villagers is emblematic of how communities that are peripheral to the state are viewed as a threat – a “shatter zone” – to be homogenized and incorporated into the imposed cultural mainstream.
In this instance, they are also to be silenced.
Indigenous Karen communities have been displaced from their ancestral homeland in the Kaeng Krachan forest complex in Thailand since 1996. By declaring their sustainable cultivation of the forest and its natural resources as encroachment, the Thai government defends its displacement of the villagers from their home in Bang Kloi Bon with justifications of conserving the forest.
Self-governance of the Karen is perceived by the state as a disturbance to the national imagination, to what “Thainess” should look like. This prescriptivism has violent repercussions, demonstrated by the crackdown of 2011, where forest officials burned homes to drive out Karen who refused to leave the area, and the forced disappearance of Karen activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen in 2014, amongst many others.
The state monopoly on violence, to borrow from Max Weber, legitimates oppressive actions against minorities.
Eviction, imprisonment, and dehumanization is justified on the grounds that this is the state’s territory, and those who refuse to subject are forced under control or driven out.
What the Karen have suffered, and what they continue to fight against, derive from the historical lineage of states absorbing ungoverned, autonomous peoples as part of the cultural standardization and homogenization required by the nation-building project.
Even now, promises of peaceful dialogue ring hollow, a flimsy façade against the looming threat of another violent crackdown. Reports of armed helicopters approaching the Kaeng Krachan forest area conflict with the assured openness to negotiate land rights.
When will this violence end? Will it ever? If the goal is, as Scott puts it, for “the complete elimination of nonstate spaces,” the Karen may never be able to return home. The government most likely will not stop until the villagers have lost all everything, including the ability to speak out and protest.
Years of campaigning have resulted in marginal gains: the 2019 Community Forestry Act may have been passed, but it only allows habitation in forests outside conservation areas, which does nothing for communities like Karen who do live in conservation areas.
The 1998 cabinet resolution, which specifies that land will only be returned to forest communities on the basis it is continuously used, contradicts the Karen’s practice of rotating land for agriculture, cultivating one area and moving onto the next to give the soil time to replenish. It has yet to be overturned.
The 2018 ruling by the Supreme Administrative court upheld eviction policies, only ordering the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Conservation (DNP) to pay 10,000-baht compensation for the homes burned in the 2011 crackdown.
By continuing to claim that the violence against Karen villagers is a necessary measure for conserving the forest, the Thai government continues to perpetuate inaccuracies about the Karen people and their relationship to the forest. UNESCO’s decision to postpone the consideration of the Kaeng Krachan forest as a natural world heritage site in 2019 because of the unresolved conflict with the Karen population shows that the government’s human rights violations are not lost on the larger international community.
The attempt to obscure these violations through the heritage site nomination, though, is worth noting. Violently displacing the Karen population and then turning around to cast yourself as a protector and conservationist of the forest complex is the state propagating what Scott calls the “self-inflating” narrative of “confounding the status of state-subject with civilization and that of self-governing peoples with primitivism.”
In essence, indigenous non-state people in the region, like the Karen community, are stigmatized as “backward” and “barbarian,” naturalizing the presence of the nation-state for “progress” and “development.”
The situation in Bang Kloi, as previously mentioned, is a modern rendering of a longstanding historical issue. There exists “a distinction, hence a dialectic, between a settled, state-governed population and a frontier penumbra of less governed or virtually autonomous peoples” which has manifested across space and time.
Scott points to numerous instances in the late 17th century, such as the “outlaw corridor” of the Roma and Sinti people in Brandenburg-Prussia and the maroon community of slaves in Palmares, Brazil. These communities “are not simply a space of political resistance but also a zone of cultural refusal” that offer a place of refuge for those to flee from the state as well as a home for those who have never been state subjects to begin with.
The tension inherent in the dialectical relationship between two peoples can undoubtedly give rise to violence, as seen in the archetypal example of Bang Kloi, where the state actively works to deny the rights of minorities. But there are instances where the dynamic is reversed: the Mongols, in 12th century, were a “militarized pastoral people” that overran a state and ruled in its place.
Resistance to state structures is possible.
Scott’s claim that “living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition” speaks to the relatively recent – but rapid – onset of modern states and the national hegemonies that come with it. The ethos of self-governance relies upon constant fluidity, a continuous shift in the social and cultural organization of the people that resist the dynastic or modern state.
For the Karen people of Kaeng Krachan forest, overruling the entirety of Thailand may not be on the table. But there is hope that as these confrontations with state authorities increase, efforts to protest and pressure the government by activists, netizens, and the villagers themselves will come to fruition, and allow Karen communities to return to their ancestral home.